“A team is where a boy can prove his courage on his own. A gang is where a coward goes to hide.” ― Mickey Mantle
JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The Seattle Seahawks' secondary has managed to be old-school and new-school at the same time -- and in all sorts of ways. None of the starters in Seattle's back four is older than 25, yet they play the game as Mel Blount and Lester Hayes and Jack Tatum did generations ago -- with sticky technique, unbridled aggression and supreme confidence. That confidence is backed up by effectiveness and efficiency not often seen in today's pass-heavy NFL, a league that seems to punish defensive aggression at every possible turn.
This secondary lives on the wrong side of the NFL's good graces... and the fact that none of the young men involved appear to be apologetic about that sends some into the throes of apoplexy. Cornerback Richard Sherman beat a four-game suspension last year for a violation of the league's policies against performance-enhancing substances, and his trash-talking spree after the NFC Championship game had him labeled a "thug" by some. Backup cornerback Walter Thurmond served a four-game suspension for his own violation of the league's drug policies this season, and it wasn't really until veteran cornerback Brandon Browner was popped with a year-long suspension this season that third-year man Byron Maxwell was able to come to the fore and really shine as Sherman's bookend.
Safety Kam Chancellor, a 6-foot-3, 232-pound giant safety, coined the nickname "Legion of Boom" for the Seahawks secondary, and it's entirely appropriate. Chancellor is the one known for the big hits, while fellow safety Earl Thomas is content to be perhaps the NFL's best defensive player.
It's a complicated group, and it's a group that's hard to understand at times, but the results are undeniable. Seattle's defense ranked first in yards allowed and points allowed and finished first in Football Outsiders' more advanced metrics against the pass and in total defense. Sherman is the cornerback nobody wants to target. He was thrown to just 10.56 percent of the time in Seattle's regular season, and he still led the NFL with eight interceptions. He also led the league with a 47.3 opposing quarterback rating. In two postseason games, opposing quarterbacks targeted Sherman twice -- for no catches.
Maxwell has the league's second-lowest opposing quarterback rating at 47.8. In the postseason, he gave up two catches on eight targets for 39 yards and no touchdowns.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has said that it's been a long time since he's seen a post route thrown on his team, and that's because Thomas is so adept at deep coverage -- and any receiver who comes across the middle against Chancellor is just asking for a trip to the Advil farm.
So, with all that trickiness on and off the field, is there concern in Carroll's mind that his team -- and specifically, his secondary -- is developing a bad reputation?
“No, I’m really not concerned with that," he said Wednesday. "I think anybody has an opportunity to say what they want to say about what’s happened in the past. I think we’re a young team that’s learning how to work with the guidelines and all of that. I think if you look back on the individuals that were involved in the PEDs and all of that kind of stuff, there’s a spread of guys from years ago and the numbers kind of add up. But I’m not concerned about where it’s going; I’m not concerned about the message. We would like to do right and get better, so we’re trying to improve and learn from everything that comes along.”
It's a nice thing to say, but let's be real. Few coaches in this particular sport are unhappy with the idea that their teams play with a specific edge -- and that this edge is seen by others, good or bad. The L.O.B. is a known entity, and if its reputation precedes... well, all the better.
“In this league, it’s a very physical game," Denver Broncos receiver Eric Decker said Wednesday of the Legion, and its predilection for pushing the envelope. "You see a lot of defenses, especially with the passing game becoming more prevalent, cornerbacks getting to the receiver at the line of scrimmage and at the top of routes. I think they do it well. They challenge teams and are the best at it in the NFL. As far as pushing the envelope, I wouldn’t say so much. I’d say they do as much as other teams do, even ourselves.”
But it is true that Sherman finished second to St. Louis' Janoris Jenkins among defensive backs in regular season penalties with 10 -- five for defensive pass interference, three for defensive holding, two for unnecessary roughness and one for taunting. And the Seahawks led the league with 142 penalties this season. As defensive coordinator Dan Quinn told me, there's a line between using aggression in the right ways and falling away from the game plan due to one's own badassery.
"We want to play as aggressively as we can," Quinn said. "That's a line we've been glad to step on and walk on. But it's really our attitude and our style -- we want to be aggressive and out-hit guys. We want to play physically, but we want to do it within how we play, you know? Just because you're physical doesn't mean you have to grab. Just because you're physical doesn't mean that you go hands to the face. Just because you're physical doesn't mean that you jump offside. It's really just a style and an attitude that we have."
The best evidence that this defense relies on controlled anarchy as opposed to any other kind is the frequency with which players are able to come into the system and play at the highest level. There is a plan within all that chaos. If there wasn't one, none of this would work -- and the Seahawks would be just another gang of guys, who would not be on the brink of their first Super Bowl.
"Well, I think number one, [secondary coach] Kris [Richard] and [defensive passing game coordinator] Rocky [Seto] do a great job," Quinn said when I asked him how 'Next Man Up' has become a real and valuable part of this secondary. "There's a really detailed approach about how we play defensive back. There are some real principles that we stick true to all the time. So, for the guys who have that consistent approach and stay consistent within it, they usually play pretty well."
So, while it will appear to some that Sherman is a thug and the Seahawks are a gang, there's perhaps a deeper meaning to this particular Legion. And perhaps it can be found in the heart of the game, where violence meets precision and becomes something atypically beautiful, and in the hearts of the players, who have found a bond with each other.
"My relationship with Kam is just like the relationship with everybody in this secondary," Thomas said Wednesday. "It's very close. Family. We talk a lot. I think the biggest thing that we do best is open everything to each other. That's why we're so connected and that's why that respect factor is there. And that's why we play at such a high level.
"[The Legion of Boom] just happened naturally. Just a group of guys that just want to be the best and want to change everything about the perception of defensive players getting scored on and eliminating explosive plays, and having fun while you do it.”
Sounds like a gang. In the best possible way.
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